After Aimee Bender's reading at the Elliott Bay Book Company a couple weeks ago, Emily Strelow stood in line surrounded by some of her summer-quarter creative-writing students. They had spent the last few months discussing stories by Cheever, Chekhov, D'Ambrosio, García Márquez, Saunders, Paley, and Welty, and more recently, their own stories, and now they were all out in the world together, with the awkward camaraderie of people who know one another's work but don't really know one another. I struck up a conversation with one of the students, a wide-eyed Strelow devotee, and he immediately said, "We follow her around. She's our Jesus."
Strelow is tall, blond, in her 20s, a recent MFA grad, and hard to part ways with. A handful of the students made like they were leaving several times before actually leaving, and then one of them turned back once again with this burning question: "Wait, so did you go to prom with Napoleon Dynamite?"
Strelow went to high school in Salem, Oregon, with the guy who played Napoleon Dynamite.
"You seem to go everywhere and know everyone," another student said.
Strelow charmingly denied this characterization, but when we met for a drink in Wallingford a week later, she had just given away her cat, because she's off to Berlin (she goes everywhere) to visit a musician I happen to know in another context (she knows everyone). When we started talking about books, she confessed to liking books on tape (and then pulled Woolf's Orlando on CD out of her purse), and when the conversation turned to writing fiction, she effectively denied that she had any idea what she was doing at all (most good writers have this shyness).
Also, for a prophet, Strelow's not too hot on being quoted. Actually it drove her crazy watching me write down everything she said, so eventually she started asking me questions, too, to make things equal, and writing down my answers on the back of a Petco receipt. (She's been known to write entire stories on the backs of receipts and staple them together. "I have sort of a sieve brain," she says. She has to write things down as they occur to her.)
More shyness: For five years, Strelow has been writing stories but not sending them out. That recently changed. She sent something somewhere. That's about all she'd say. She described her own writing as satiric, unrealistic, and somewhat indebted to Donald Barthelme. She was far more eager to talk about her students ("They remind me of the things that are possible"), her dad (also a writer), Seattle ("It's a crappy little town!"), her lack of a plan following Berlin ("I'm sort of a cliff jumper"), and the literary salon she wants to start.
We finished a pitcher of Rainier. The bartender asked if we wanted another. Strelow smiled bashfully. We decided to go for it. "A lot of students say there's a lot of drinking in the stories I teach," she said. "And I think: Fair enough."